When Bobby Jackson, who played quarterback on Bear Bryant's
first Alabama team, in 1958, was inducted into the Mobile Sports
Hall of Fame three years ago, it was unexpectedly one of the
proudest moments of my life. I didn't know Jackson, but as he
began his acceptance speech, he saw his high school basketball
coach in the audience and asked him to stand up.
So my father, Herman Maisel, stood up. My dad coached his last
game on March 10, 1956, the night that his team, Murphy High of
Mobile, won the state AA championship. A few weeks later, shortly
after the Second Guessers Club, the school booster group, awarded
him $500 and a set of golf clubs for winning the title, my father
quit. He was 30 and tired of trying to eke out a living for his
wife and two children from an average annual salary of $3,400. I
was born four years later, in 1960, and knew my father primarily
as a real estate developer. He occasionally told me stories of
his coaching days: how he was convinced the anti-Semitism endemic
to the Deep South cost him one job; how my sister Kathy, then a
toddler, ran across the court to see him--in the middle of a game;
and how Ronnie (Bubba) Cochran, his star player, led the Panthers
in their dramatic drive to the state title and then all but
Though it had been his dream to coach, Daddy never spoke of those
years wistfully. A couple of basketball trophies sat on a high
shelf in our den, but there were no related photographs on the
walls, and the box of newspaper clippings in which he was
identified as "the canny Blue and Gold cage chieftain" rarely
left the cabinets in the den. As a teenager infatuated with the
idea of being the son of a canny cage chieftain, I asked him why
he quit. He studied me for a second and said, "Either I could
coach or you could eat."
That throwaway explanation stuck with me. I always believed there
had been something magical about his career. My father coached
his alma mater to the first state basketball title won by a
Mobile high school since the tournament began in 1921. Not until
1986 would a school from the city win another state championship.
That's why Jackson's recognition of my father touched me. It made
me proud, of course, but it also made me curious. Daddy is 74 and
in good physical and mental condition, yet time is passing. I
decided to find out what kind of coach he had been and why he was
so successful. What I discovered was a group of men in their 60s
who speak of my father with a reverence that I thought was
characteristic of only me and my siblings.
April 2, 2000
"Your dad meant a lot to me," says Bill Smith, the captain of two
of my father's teams, who went on to a 35-year career as a high
school coach and educator. "I've never had the chance to tell him
In four seasons at Murphy, my father had a record of 91-14
(.867). The Panthers went to the state tournament three times,
reaching the semifinals on his first try, in 1953, and winning it
all on his last. Nothing in his career before Murphy indicated
that he would win that much. As a graduate student in physical
education at Alabama, he coached the 1950-51 freshman team. The
Baby Tide, as the headlines referred to the squad, finished 3-9.
The way my father ran his practices impressed both varsity coach
Floyd Burdette and athletic director Hank Crisp, but the losing
caused Daddy to second-guess himself. "I thought, I just can't do
this; I guess I'd better find something else to do," he says,
"until I realized toward the end of the season the team didn't
have any talent."
When the coaching job at Scottsboro High, in northeastern
Alabama, opened up, my father wanted it so badly that he took a
bus 150 miles from Tuscaloosa to interview for it. "I talked to
Coach Burdette," the Scottsboro High principal told my father,
"and he thinks you're going to be a good coach and I ought to
hire you. We've got some other people to interview. You're going
to get a good chance to get this job. By the way, what church
will you be attending?"
"I won't be attending church," my father said. "I'm Jewish."
The principal, taken aback, said, "We don't have any Jewish
churches in Scottsboro."
That, given the prejudices of the day in small-town Alabama, was
that. Daddy returned home to Mobile and, with my mother pregnant,
got a job tracking down deadbeats for a finance company. In the
summer of 1952 he interviewed for the Murphy job, and with a
recommendation from Crisp, the Alabama AD, he got it. Murphy
athletic director and football coach Bill Sharpe didn't flinch
when he learned my father was Jewish. Flinch? Sharpe's eyes
brightened. "You're Jewish?" he said. "I'm going to let you buy
uniforms! You can do a helluva lot better job buying than I can."
Stereotyped or not, my father relished his return to his alma
mater, where he had starred in basketball before graduating in
1942. But Sharpe, who had played football at Alabama from 1929 to
'31, explained where basketball stood among his priorities. "We
don't have a 'basketball coach,'" Sharpe said. "We're hiring you
as an assistant football coach."
The basketball team Daddy took over had been nothing special,
because nothing special had been demanded of it. He "changed the
whole atmosphere," says Jackson.
The players sensed that my father had none of the traditional
coach in him. Although he was 27, had been wounded as a Marine in
the Pacific during World War II, and was married and had a baby,
he didn't seem much older than the Panthers. "Coach Maisel was
different," says Stanley Moore, a guard on the 1955-56 team. "He
was not the good-ol'-boy coach. He was more sophisticated, more
intelligent. He had the ability to be a little bit amused, a
little bit detached."
Jackson, who took his share of helmet slaps from football
coaches, adds, "Your dad didn't talk down to me. He talked to us
like we were adults."
Murphy raced through the 1952-53 regular season with an 18-4
record and reached the semifinals of the state tournament, where
it lost to Dothan 41-37. The Panthers won the consolation game to
finish the year 21-5. The 1953-54 team, Daddy's second, finished
with the same record, although it failed to reach the state
tournament. Smith missed the team's yearbook photo shoot because
his father had dropped dead from a heart attack that morning.
When Smith came to school a couple of days later, he told Daddy
that he thought he would have to drop out. "My father didn't have
much insurance," Smith told me later. "He was a retired fireman,
and my mother hadn't worked. It was just going to be my mother,
my younger sister and me. Your dad said, 'Let me check around and
see if I can do something.'"
My father called Ray Bridges, the county sheriff, who owned an
all-night grocery. Smith became a weekend overnight stock boy. He
would play a game on Friday night, go to work, go home Saturday
morning and work again Saturday night. "That gave me enough money
to stay in school," Smith says. After Smith's senior season Daddy
got him into the North-South All-Star game, where a junior
college coach saw him and offered him a scholarship. Smith went
on to graduate from William Carey College in Mississippi and went
into coaching and administration. He retired as principal of
Huntsville (Ala.) High in 1995. "I guess I went into [education]
because of your father," Smith says. "He became a father figure
In 1954-55, the senior season for Smith and Jackson and two other
starters, Murphy went 21-1 and went into the state tournament in
Tuscaloosa as a favorite. But Eufaula High, led by future Auburn
star guard Henry Hart, upset the Panthers 71-65.
The 1955-56 team had only one returning starter, but that was
Cochran, a 6'2", 170-pound guard. He averaged 19.2 points in his
senior season, then scored 21.3 per game in the state tournament.
To this day my father maintains that Cochran was the best player
ever to come out of Mobile. Granted, anyone listing the top five
Mobile basketball players would start with Golden State Warriors
forward Jason Caffey and then pause awkwardly. But Cochran's
former teammates gush when they speak of him. "He had a quick
first step," says Henny Bolton, a scrub on the team who also went
into coaching. "Naturally, he was a good shooter. He was strong
to the hoop. He'd go to the hole."
The championship season began like the others: My father didn't
cut anyone. He carried up to 23 players. The Panthers didn't have
many plays. The ones they had, they practiced over and over. The
offense depended on the pick-and-roll. Daddy's teams also loved
To keep practice interesting, Daddy used innovative drills. He
would put a cover over the basket to get the boys to practice
rebounding and tap-ins. Rather than have his players go out
before a game and stand in layup lines, my father taught them a
five-man weave. The ball never touched the floor, moving from one
player to the next, no collisions, no awkward movements, just a
glide downcourt until whoever got the ball under the basket made
a layup. Even opposing teams would stop and watch. "We'd come out
and do that in warmup, and the students would get kind of quiet,"
says Cochran, his eyes aglow with the memory.
Murphy opened the season in Montgomery, routing Lanier High
61-43. Then they split two games with Holy Cross of New Orleans.
Other than that, they didn't lose until the last game of the
regular season, at Dothan. That turned out to be fortunate. When
Murphy went into the 16-team state tournament unseeded, it drew
Dothan in the first round. The Panthers won 76-51, with four
players scoring in double figures. On Friday night loomed
tournament favorite Scottsboro High, with three all-tournament
players returning from the team that finished second in 1955.
SCOTTSBORO MARKED TEAM IN CAGE MEET, read the headline in The
Birmingham News. Scottsboro was the school that had not called
Daddy back after he revealed his religion. He recalls giving a
pregame speech to his players in which he laid out what had
happened to him, but none of the players remembers Daddy's talk.
Murphy led 22-12 at the end of the first quarter and 43-24 at
halftime. The lead dwindled in the fourth quarter, but the final
score of 65-60 isn't indicative of the rout. Cochran scored 27
points, and the Panthers shot 55.3% from the floor.
The next afternoon Murphy won 36-35 over Lanier, the team it had
beaten in Montgomery by 18 points in the season opener. The final
that night was anticlimactic. The Panthers blew through
Greensboro 67-49. After the game Johnny Dee, coach of the Alabama
basketball team that had just finished an undefeated season in
the SEC, handed the MVP trophy to Cochran and gushed, "The script
says 'a fine guard,' but I want to change that to a great
guard--Ron Cochran." Later that week Dee signed Cochran to play
for him at Alabama. He also wrote this letter to my father:
Just a note to sincerely congratulate you on the fine job that
you and your team did in the tournament. I truthfully believe
that it is the finest coached team that I have seen in the
tournament the four years I have been at Alabama....
Dee resigned from Alabama three weeks later to do coach in the
National Industrial League, but Cochran quickly established
himself in Tuscaloosa, scoring 34 points in the first freshman
game. Although Sport magazine would tab him as a talent to watch,
Cochran dropped out of school before the end of the year and
spent 38 years as a machinist at the Scott Paper Company mill in
Mobile. Of the 12 former Panthers whom I was able to track down,
Cochran had the keenest memory. He rattled off the ways in which
Daddy's offense and defense worked. He remembered the
motivational lessons. "He knew what we could do," Cochran says.
"He would keep pushing us. 'What is your limit? Do you have a
limit? If you do, what is it?'"
On the heels of the state tournament victory my father received
feelers from a couple of small colleges, but my mother, his
childhood sweetheart, had no desire to leave Mobile. He took the
$500 that the Second Guessers Club had collected for him, made a
down payment on 10 residential lots and began to learn the real
estate business. By 1971 he had purchased an old-line Mobile
realty company. Over the next 20 years he became one of the
leading commercial developers on the Gulf Coast.
I began this exercise as a way of discovering a part of my father
that I barely knew. To a man, his former players spoke of him
with respect and admiration. It was strange to learn that all
these years my father had been a guiding force in the lives of so
many men, and I hadn't known about it. I couldn't be prouder of
Well, maybe I can. The Mobile Sports Hall of Fame called Daddy
last month to tell him that he had been elected to the Class of
2000. His plaque will hang alongside those belonging to Hank
Aaron, Satchel Paige and Willie McCovey, among others. I may not
be a teenager anymore, but I can tell you, it feels damn good to
be the son of a canny cage chieftain.
"Coach Maisel was different. He was more sophisticated, more
I asked Daddy why he quit. He studied me and said, "Either I
could coach or you could eat."
"Your dad meant a lot to me," says Smith. "I've never had the
chance to tell him that."